Dur e Aziz Amna’s debut novel combines the classical elements of coming-of-age stories with a layered discourse on selfhood
efore I began reading Dur e Aziz Amna’s debut novel, I assumed that the title was to be taken as a positive reference to America. A fever, after all, can clarify things for the person who contracts it. Fevers can lead to insight, even the narrator says as much at one point. I did not think of an American fever as the Chinese or South African strains of Covid-19, where the name of the country supposedly adds a sheen of fear to the disease. Oriental fevers are putrid but an American fever has to be good, I thought.
At one point in the novel, the protagonist, Hira Amjad, contracts tuberculosis and there is ample discussion on whether Pakistan or America is to blame for the disease. The book jacket will run you through the series of encounters and experiences a young Pakistani exchange student in America has in the course of the novel: a first kiss, American country life, long-distance grief, culture shock, dietary challenges and a moral and spiritual crisis.
And yes, there is something feverish about the narration, in the way the narrator steers us from moment to moment at times and through summarised accounts of important experiences at others. In Homer’s Odyssey, Odysseus, who is himself on a long journey away from his home in Ithaca through foreign soil, says again and again: Is this happening to me or is this a dream? Perhaps it’s the fate of all those who leave their homeland to wonder if what is happening to them is real or a fever dream.
But don’t get me wrong, there is nothing vague or imprecise about the sensory details here. The narration is steeped in the kind of realism that celebrates the minute trivia of Hira’s life. The American model wearing a flag print bikini on the full page of Guinness Book of World Record 1999. The all-girls school Hira attends in Rawalpindi, where the school uniform becomes a marker of privilege as well as patriarchal control. The Rawalpindi where Hira grows up, the country home in Multan where her nana lives, the Karachi she visits briefly as part of an orientation arranged by her exchange programme. The language here is calibrated and careful. At the same time, it’s the voice, that inexplicable and mysterious craft element we are always belabouring and fetishising in fiction workshops, that really grabs hold of you – an authentic voice. Page after page, the voice drives this novel forward.
My favourite thing about this novel is how it privileges the Pakistani perspective, without ever trying to translate it, over the American gaze. In fact, most of the novel seems to be at war with the American way of looking at things. A sporting war, for sure. When I started reading the novel, I was apprehensive that it might veer - like a lot of novels by Pakistanis about their experiences abroad - into an arc where a self is being forged to align or placate Western values or ways of looking at things. What a delight it was to see here the peculiar and commonplace minutiae of Pakistani life being privileged in every encounter. This is not to say that this fiction is an exercise in sugarcoating the realities of Pakistan and what it means to be a Pakistani. But wherever Hira goes, Pakistan seems to go with her. It’s a living, breathing and complex self that she is grappling with, not a watered-down version of Pakistani-ness served up so it’s palatable to a Western audience. Here is a novel written by a sympathiser, someone whose allegiances are with her people, who is willing to keep looking at them in an unflinching manner despite all other inducements – one of our own.
This is a novel where the protagonist leaves her homeland and is forever grieving all that she has left behind. The grief begins to affect all aspects of her life.
One iteration of this sensibility and framing can be seen in the representation of the killing of Osama bin Laden. Towards the end of the novel, the protagonist is returning home after having completed her exchange programme early and gets the news through text messages from her friends. Amna resists the urge to make the OBL killing more significant than it is for the sixteen-year-old Pakistani high school student. Hira almost shrugs off the event, in this scene. No weighty and misguided attempt is made towards making the event transformative for Hira.
In fact, most of the drama in the novel takes place between the three women sharing the confined domestic spaces of Hira’s host family’s residence in Lakeview, Oregon: Hira setting off the smoke alarm while frying parathas for her sehri, Hira asking her host mother, Kelly, to take her to the ER on the day after Kelly’s wedding. Kelly and her daughter, Amy, are layered as characters, their histories are slowly developed in the background of Hira’s ongoing spiritual crisis. The tension between Hira and Kelly is artfully expanded as the narrative proceeds and becomes a fierce undercurrent at times and then devolves into moments of comic relief at others. There is plenty of humour in the novel full of cultural misunderstandings and inadvertent micro-aggressions. Kelly is the well-meaning liberal American, an Obama supporter in a conservative town, a one-time hippie, now finding solace in the church. When Kelly tells Hira that she cannot be expected to cook meals for the girls, Hira wonders why Kelly signed up to host a Pakistani student. This question becomes a recurring one: in another moment Hira wonders why Kelly did not bother to learn even basic things about Pakistani culture before Hira’s arrival. But Kelly is no Mrs Jellyby, the famous Dickensian caricature who engages in telescopic philanthropy. There are moments in the novel where the reader sympathises with Kelly as she struggles to care for two teenage girls.
When I teach creative writing to undergraduates, I tell them that most love stories follow a few familiar arcs. A protagonist estranged from their beloved by circumstance sees their face everywhere. The trees, the food, the people they meet, the stories they hear, the voices and the songs of the new place all evoke the beloved. This is not a novel that tries to understand America in a new way, or where the protagonist goes to a foreign country and discovers how backward their own country is or how they can assimilate into the new one. This is a novel where the protagonist leaves their homeland and is forever grieving all that they have left behind. The grief begins to affect all aspects of their life.
When I finished reading the novel, I was filled with gratitude for finding this brilliant voice from our country at the start of her career. I am looking forward to following her writing journey in the coming years. I am also teaching her fiction in my courses this year. Dur e Aziz Amna is a writer that every Pakistani should be reading. American Fever combines the classical elements of coming-of-age stories with a layered and clever discourse on identity and selfhood. The prose is constructed in that steely and fast-paced manner that one would think that Amna has been writing novels all her life. This is one of the rare debuts where one feels, as Saul Bellow said about Roth, that the writer is no beginner but already a virtuoso.
By Dur e Aziz Amna
Publisher: Arcade (Simon and
The reviewer has an MFA from Purdue University and a PhD from Florida State University. He can be reached on Twitter @MunibAhmadKhan